Fears about difference

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Social media and the anxieties of democracies


In The Great Indian Phone Book (2013), Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron wondered if the cell phone equalled democracy. Five or so years later, however, cell-phone technology is no longer an unquestioned blessing. Phones now come with the capacity to install free apps. From the land of Donald Trump to that of Narendra Modi, all kinds of anxious questions are being asked about the relationship between these apps, in particular Facebook and WhatsApp, and the purveying of false or fake news. These applications are undeniably useful. You can keep in touch with your dispersed family, colleagues and friends for free, thanks to these apps. Anyone with access to and some understanding of how a smart phone works can now originate or relay information. The sheer amount and variety of information we process everyday make it impossible for us to check the veracity of all that comes our way. But the concerns voiced - even at the level of the Supreme Court in India - are not really about information as such; they are about how these little computers we carry on our persons could harm our polities and society by encouraging trends that undermine democracies. Commentators and public intellectuals write on the ostensibly 'post-truth' age that digital technology has helped create. As a lead character in the Australian television series, Secret City, remarks, the distinction between truth and plausibility is what matters now. If we can make something seem plausible, it can indeed trump (pun intended) truth!

These complaints sound similar across nations. But there remain some fascinating differences distinguishing Western democracies from the likes of the Indian one. Fears about authoritarianism in the West grow out of two major concerns: citizens' desire to protect their privacy, and the fear that governments and political parties could unfairly influence electoral outcomes by getting access to their personal information. The Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook data that made news a few months ago is a good example of this second fear. Personal information about tens of millions of Facebook users, many of them in the United States of America, were reportedly fished out by Cambridge Analytica and used for targeted political campaigns. Now, one could always ask whether personal data collected by various apps that we download for free can ever be fully protected from the ravages of capitalism. As a friend remarked once, "if you are getting a product free under capitalism, then you yourself must be the product that somebody wants." But, however illusory this desire to keep politics away from sales intelligence, the Western anxieties arise out of a value promoted vigorously in the 19th century and re-emphasized when totalitarian regimes arose in the 20th century: that the citizens' right to privacy was something sacrosanct.

The complaints about social and big data in India speak of fears that are different. It is, of course, true that a big-data operation like the Aadhaar project has led to concerns about how safely guarded such data might be in the hands of a government not otherwise known for efficiency. But this concern hinges on a basic question of trust: can one trust the government with the safe-keeping of one's personal information? It is the end-use of the data that is in question, not the principle of its collection. This is, indeed, why the recent attempt by the chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, R.S. Sharma, to reassure the public of the 'safety' of Aadhaar data by making his personal Aadhaar number public boomeranged. It allowed many to dig up his mobile number, date of birth, (old) residential address, chat threads and so on. Sharma's insistence that people would still not be able to harm him with such data points to the real issue in this debate. The fear expressed here is about possible material losses, and not reflective of any deep commitment to some 'outworn' liberal idea of the inviolability of the personal.

Trust and mistrust are key words here. True, Indians are a deeply social - and not privacy-oriented - people. More than sharing practical information, my South Asian friends and I use WhatsApp, for instance, to forward video clips, photos, cartoons, write-ups and so on. If I had to watch all the video clips that are sent to me, I would spend a good 45 minutes to an hour, maybe even more, everyday doing just that. Our sociality knows no time - anytime is good for a joke, song, or story.

But issues of trust and mistrust have always qualified the sense of the social in South Asia. Even among my highly-educated friends in WhatsApp groups, issues of social trust and mistrust turn up sometimes. I have been sent material asserting, for example - and on flimsy grounds - that West Bengal is on the verge of a Muslim takeover, thanks to certain policies of the state government. My friends were entirely civil in discussing the issue but some expressed the fear that this might be true and referred to their personal experiences. But it left me wondering if the language of 'experience' - as distinct from the language of statistics bearing on the actual state of Muslims in West Bengal - was not itself a pointer to the issue of trust and mistrust. We often do not trust statistics. Perhaps state or nation-wide statistics stand for some inclusively imagined space of the social that probably does not exist beyond academic discussions. The question of the Muslim in Hindu-majority West Bengal is perhaps always at its root a question of trust. Can 'we' trust the Muslim?

The fear of those who seem different makes up a deep part of our sense of the social. I remember growing up as a child in Calcutta with the fear of the child-kidnapper (the chheledhora, literally a boy-catcher). The first fridge my parents bought in the 1960s came with locking device in its door, for there was the fear of domestic servants stealing. The West has tried - with very partial success - to tame this dangerous aspect of the social by developing the idea of cosmopolitanism, an outlook that embraces diversity. We are an intensely diverse people but our cosmopolitanism is weak. Applications such as WhatsApp can be used to stoke and intensify the fear of the stranger in our midst. This stranger could be the non-political figure of the child-kidnapper; it could also be the politicized figure of the beef-eating Muslim. At such moments - aided no doubt by interested political parties and the liberal use of money - the social can take the form of a lynch mob, regardless of the target of its violence. The stranger then is just like vermin, there to be exterminated.

When we speak of the dangers that social media poses to Indian democracy, we do not speak of protecting our right to privacy. Our real fear is that, left uncontrolled or directly encouraged, the lynch mobs can double up as fascist thugs. It is a fear that arises out of the fact that some of our politicians want to make cynical use of a deep and enduring feature of Indian society - the fear of those who seem different.


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